Friday, 20 June 2014

Post-mortem: GAME OF THRONES – Season Four

Friday, 20 June 2014

The fourth season of Game of Thrones has drawn to a close, and the HBO drama has now completed George R.R Martin's third novel (A Storm of Swords). It was a very eventful year for some characters (Tyrion), a mostly place-holding one for others (Stannis, Bran), and a few appear to have been forgotten about (is Gendry Baratheon still rowing around the coast?). I know many readers wonder why I don't cover GoT every week, because it's a hugely popular and excellent show, but this post-mortem review will hopefully please those wondering what my thoughts have been...

King's Landing
Most of my favourite characters mill around King's Landing and three of the season's biggest moments occurred there. The early poisoning of detestable King Joffrey (Jack Gleeson) at his wedding reception came as a big shock, but with a trace of disappointment the little shit was killed in such an impersonal way.

However, Joffrey's murder triggered an excellent storyline with Tyrion (Peter Dinklage) facing trial for the crime at sister Cersei's (Lena Headey) behest, which led to a succession of brilliant two-way conversations in Tyrion's dungeon with his sympathetic brother Jamie (Nikolaj Coster-Waldau), sellsword pal Bronn (Jerome Flynn) and, in possibly the season's best ever scene, visiting Prince Oberyn (Pedro Pascal). A character who made an instant impression on GoT, making hearts swell with his sincere and rousing decision to help Tyrion evade an unfair death sentence by fighting on his behalf in a "trial by combat" against 'The Mountain'—only to become the latest victim of the show's love for cruel, shocking turn of events. A credit to Pascal that watching Oberyn's head explode like a melon from the mother of all eye-gouges caused so many hollow stomachs, considering the character had only been introduced this year. RIP.

The finale changed the Lannister family's power dynamic even further, with Tyrion's escape thanks to Jamie and Varys (Conleth Hill), but not before he'd strangled traitorous lover Shae (Sibel Kekilli) and twice shot his own father with a crossbow while he took a late night dump. A fantastic way for Tyrion to get his revenge on the key people to have wronged him (did Cersei only avoid death because he knows his saviour sibling Jamie loves her?), but a part of me does wonder if GoT is creating too much of a personality vacuum. Tywin was one of the best villains the show has to offer, so to remove him the same year we also lost prized hate figure Joffrey feels brave but potentially disastrous. Strong heroes need equally strong villains, but who's the show's face of evil now? The Bolton family in the North? Or will someone new enter the frame next season?

Slaver's Bay
Daenerys (Emilia Clarke) remains a very popular character because she's strong and righteous (oh, and sexy), but this season started adding shadows to her nobility. The Khaleesi's intentions are honest and noble (born of her own hatred for slavery), but these ten episodes made us realise she's perhaps too much of a naive idealist. The cities her army of Unsullied have been liberating across Slaver's Bay quickly fell into old habits once she departed (meaning she's resolved to stay and quash her enemies before travelling to Westeros to claim the Iron Throne), and she perhaps sees the world as too black-and-white (crucifying a whole city's "masters" without trial, despite later realising some were good men who opposed slavery).

There were early hints Dany's trio of dragons are beginning to outgrow her, too, in the sense her belief they'll remain loyal because she's 'The Mother of Dragons' is patently absurd. These are large, dangerous beasts who haven't been trained and could potentially become a threat to Dany's safety and the people she rules over—as highlighted in the finale when a cremated child finally persuaded Dany to put two of her dragons in chains down in the catacombs. But with another dragon roaming the skies unchecked, and his brothers perhaps becoming hazardously angry in their dark prison... has Dany lost her greatest military weapon? Or will this slaver-like treatment prove, ironically, to be the only way to keep her beloved dragons on the straight-and-narrow?

Adding to her woes, she also exiled her longest-serving aide and confidant this season, when Ser Jorrah (Iain Glen) was revealed to have been paid to spy on her when he was first assigned as her counsel. Few people seem to mention Glen's performance on the show, but I've always enjoyed his presence. The low hum of an unrequited love story with his Queen always appealed, as the romantic side of me liked to believe he'd one day escape Khaleesi's 'friend zone'. I hope this isn't the last we'll ever see of Jorrah.

Beyond the Wall
I know everyone loves gentle giant Hodor (Kristian "Hodor" Nairn), while Bran's (Isaac Hempstead-Wright) eerie ability to transfer his consciousness into the minds of animals and feeble-minded people ("warging") is seriously cool, but I haven't connected to this strand of the GoT story. The show is perhaps guilty of having too many characters locked in circular situations, essentially on the sub's bench, waiting for the plot to require their input. We at least had that good episode when Bran, Hodor and their travel companions were captured by Tanner's (Burn Gorman) men, only to escape amidst the chaos of battle when Bran's half-brother Jon Snow (Kit Harrington) arrived to burn the place to the ground.

Oddly, Bran's group then vanished for the bulk of season 4, only to return for the fantastic finale ("The Children") and complete their quest to locate the Heart Tree—home of the mystical three-eyed raven (Struan Rodger). And while their storyline has been one of the least interesting to me, I'm now excited to realise this plot is venturing into bold supernatural turf. There was a thrilling Jason of the Argonauts-esque fight sequence on an ice plateau with some reanimated skeletons (known as 'Wights', apparently), and now Bran's met what appears to be an ancient sorcerer promising he'll come to fly rather than walk. Does this mean Bran will literally take the form of a bird, too? Is Bran perhaps this character's chosen successor?

The Wall
Jon Snow was at the forefront of episode 9 ("The Watchers on the Wall"), which was essentially season 4's answer to season 2's Battle of Blackwater. It even shared a director in Neil Marshall and ninth hour scheduling. Here, the Night's Watch fended off an attack from a 100,000-strong Wilding army, amassed by 'King Beyond the Wall' Mance Rayder (Ciarán Hinds), and featuring a handful of enormous giants and some big mammoths. The resulting action-packed hour split opinion, but I thought it was very enjoyable as a burst of spectacle the show simply can't afford to deliver as regularly as the books.

I think the disappointment from some viewers stems from the fact that, unlike the Battle of Blackwater, this "Battle for the Wall" revolved around some of the show's weaker characters. Sam (John Bradley-West) is a really nice guy with a heart of gold, but do we really care about him and new mum Gilly (Hannah Murray)? Jon Snow's main contribution to the show has been his ability to brood. Even the death of Ygritte (Rose Leslie), a decent enough Wilding character, failed to register much emotion. I actually stifled a laugh when the writers made her final words Ygritte's catchphrase ("you know nuthin', Jon Snow...") But wow, that pendulum-like scythe splatting enemy climbers like ants was totally bad-ass, huh?

The North
I know some people found it indulgent and tedious, but I've enjoyed the physical and mental destruction of Theon Greyjoy (Alfie Allen) by sadistic bastard Ramsay Snow (Iwan Rheon). After season 3's endless torture scenes, this year saw Theon existing in his transformed state of mindless servant "Reek", and Allen continued to give a fantastic but often overlooked performance. There's a real pain and sense of loss in these scenes with nobleman Theon having been reduced to a brainwashed eunuch; incapable of doing anything to facilitate his own revenge or escape from this never-ending torment.

I can understand some people not liking this string of the GoT bow, but I think it's psychologically fascinating and rings very true. And it resulted in a huge change to the show towards the end, with Reek (posing as Theon) helping hand a huge strategic victory to Ramsay's adopted father, Lord Roose Bolton (Michael McElhatton). This in turn gave Ramsay legitimacy as Roose's son and the Bolton family dominant control of the North. Well, for now, because doesn't Stannis Baratheon's (Stephen Dillane) amassed army have them beat?

The Vale
A return to this area of Westeros since we last visited in season 1, thanks to Sansa Stark (Sophie Turner) being smuggled out of King's Landing to reunite with her aunt Lysa (Kate Dickie) with the help of Lord Baylish (Aiden Gillan), to avoid getting embroiled up in the hunt for King Joffrey's poisoner. Sansa's been a curious character, but usually feels like too much of a drip to get hugely interested in. She was always sympathetic, but Turner's had to play a victim for so long it was boring me. So thank goodness for this season, which looks to have transformed Sansa into a real player—thanks to an unlikely alliance with master liar Baylish; who murdered her crazy aunt, but has thus made them both very powerful people in this part of Westeros. That moment with Sansa (hair dyed darker from its natural red) walking down a staircase, looking regal and composed in her dead aunt's attire, signalled a very different Sansa for season 5. Someone whose past experiences and closeness to Baylish may create a hardened, mature woman you don't want to tangle with.

Dragonstone & Across the Narrow Sea
If one character was pushed way into the background this season, it was rightful king Stannis Baratheon and his loyal knight Davos (Liam Cunningham). Stannis has been licking his wounds since his defeat at the Battle of Blackwater a few seasons ago, but was given very little screen-time this year. Beyond going to see the Iron Bank across the Narrow Sea, to ask for financial aide in a second attempt to claim the Iron Throne, he didn't have much else to do. That's a pity, but it's to be expected with a huge story trying to service so many characters.

At least the finale promises he'll have a more central presence next season, as Stannis swept in to defeat Mance Rayder, and, it appears, secure the devotion of the Night's Watch as he likely takes his army southwards towards King's Landing for vengeance against the Lannister's. And isn't this pretty much guaranteed, now Tyrion's been smuggled overseas with Varys, and Tywin's dead? I have zero faith that Cersei, Jamie, and adolescent King Tommen (Dean-Charles Chapman) will be able to hold onto the Iron Throne now.

The nomadic others
Two duos are traipsing around Westeros on their own private missions. Arya (Maisie Williams) and The Hound (Rory McCann) have become one of the show's most popular 'odd couples', and this year was a strong one in terms of their amusing badinage, while Arya continues to grow into a skilled swordsman with vengeance in mind following the massacre that claimed the lives of her brother and mother. The second duo were less prominent and more comedic, as lofty Brienne of Tarth (Gwendoline Christie) was sent on a quest by Jamie Lannister to find the fugitive Sansa Stark and protecting her, with the help of squire Podrick (Daniel Portman).

Each storyline had its charms, but will be remembered for how they came together in such a devastating, bone-crunching, head-butting manner. Arya's relationship with The Hound has always been complicated, but here she let herself be fought over, and the ensuing fight sequence was a highlight of the entire show. I couldn't see The Hound losing this skirmish, as the show delights in killing off the more noble character, and it was fairly evenly matched, but eventually Brienne was victorious after being forced to fight as dirty as her challenger. And then there was that quiet scene with Arya refusing to kill The Hound as a small mercy, instead letting him lie at the foot of a small cliff with a broken body to die in pain. Again, it's always a worry when a popular character like The Hound is removed from the story, mainly because I don't see too many worthy replacements coming through. Still, his passing does mean Arya now has her independence and has secured herself passage to Braavos aboard a ship. Although I'm still confused nobody at The Eyrie thought to mention her sister Sansa's presence. A sisterly reunion would have been nice, but I guess GoT doesn't really do nice.